I had never seen a honey possum until I went to Australia. I hadn’t even heard of the honey possum until I saw one. They are only very distantly related to possums, and they don’t eat honey, so I was curious how they got their name. As soon as I saw one, I wanted to learn about them. In this article, I will teach you what I know about them.
The honey possum is a small shrew-like marsupial found in Southwestern Australia. They have long snouts and three stripes from their head to their tail. They feed on pollen and nectar and can be seen hanging off flowers and gathering food.
Please read on if you want to know more about the honey possum.
The honey possum had adapted to feed on pollen and nectar, evolving about 20 million years ago when flowering plants were widespread. They have no fossil history earlier than 35,000 years ago and are the surviving representative of a line of marsupials from the kangaroo-possum stem.
They can be found in southwest Australia, where heathland still exists, with over 3,500 species of flowering plants that allow them to feed on nectar only.
The honey possum is a tiny shrew-like mammal measuring 6.5-8.5cm (2.6-3.3in) and a weight of 7-11g. Females are larger and heavier than males. Their prehensile tails are longer than their bodies and heads. They have opposable first digits to the hind feet, and their feet are excellent at gripping branches, with rough pads on the tips and short fingertips.
They have a pale brown head with a greyish brown body topped by three darker stripes along the back. The darkest stripe is in the middle and extends from the base of the tail to the head. The outside stripes do not reach the tail.
Honey possums have pale yellow or white underparts with white feet and rufous limbs. They have short fur with an almost naked tail.
The honey possum has a long pointed snout, around two thirds the length of its head, and a tongue that extends 25mm further than the nose. They use the tongue to gather pollen and honey, which they scrape off on the palate.
Honey possums can be seen running through vegetation. Their prehensile tails give them extra support when running fast and additional stability when climbing. They use their tails to grip flowers, trees and shrubs, allowing them to use their forelimbs to feed. Because they are small, honey possums can feed on flowers on thin branches.
Several animals can be seen in one place where their favourite food grows, and they can often be seen hanging upside down to get to the best flowers.
They communicate using visual postures and different high-pitched squeaks, which suits their nocturnal life. They have an excellent sense of smell, using it to feed and carry out social duties.
Honey possums feed on nectar and pollen. Many honey possums will feed exclusively on one shrub they can find in their home territory.
They probe deep into the flowers with a tongue covered with brushes and a pointed snout. Because of its small size and prehensile tail, they can grab onto the smallest plant stalks, allowing them to use their hands and feet to get to their food.
Honey possums can easily digest the nectar for energy, but the pollen grains which provide protein need to be broken down. They have a complex two-chambered stomach, and it is thought that these aid digest the pollen grains.
Reproduction and young
Males and females mature at six months, and while breeding may occur at any time during the year, they mainly happen in January and February, when plants are getting started to be ready to flower.
A second and third group of births happens after three months in April and May and July and August.
Honey possums are the only marsupials outside kangaroos and wallabies to exhibit embryonic diapause. Embryonic diapause occurs when a fertilised egg enters a period of dormancy before finally developing. Because honey possums use this method, they can give birth as soon as they have raised their litter.
This allows the parent to have her young once the young are ready to fend for themselves. Spring, summer, and autumn are the perfect times for young honey possums to leave as there is plenty of food.
Once a male thinks that the female is in estrus, he will attempt to mount her. If she is not ready, she will not stay still, and mating will not occur.
The young are carried in the mother’s pouch after a gestation period of 28 days. Typically, two or three are born in a litter, although four sometimes occur. They are born at a weight of just 0.005g, but by eight weeks, they weigh about 2.5g.
After eight weeks, they can see but are still unsteady on their feet. They are left in a small hollow or old bird’s nest while she looks for food as they are let out.
The collective young weigh as much as the mother at this stage, so she may not carry them on her back. After a week in the nest, they will start to follow the mother while she finds food and leave her from about 11 weeks.
The home range of a honey possum is about 1ha (2.5 acres.) However, a female with young will have a much smaller range of about a tenth of this. Females are dominant over males and can be aggressive to strangers in their territory, especially when they have young close.
As the young grow and stay in the nest, the mother will have to keep returning to them. In cold weather and times of low food, they will huddle together to keep warm and may even enter torpor, depending on the conditions.
The honey possum is classed as least concern on the IUCN red list, although its small distribution may be a factor in the future. However, the honey possum, a fantastic animal, is relatively safe for now.